Polar opposites
by Henrik Manninen|17 NOV 2020
From Down Under to the Arctic Circle. Australia’s national team goaltender, 15-year-old Olivia Last (centre), is making a name for herself at RoKi Rovaniemi in Finland’s top women’s division. Also playing for the club’s junior program are her two siblings, Matthew (left) and her twin brother Harrison (right).
photo: Aneta Last
Wishes do come true, where else but in the land of Santa Claus? With Christmas less than two months away, Australia’s 15-year-old goaltender Olivia Last is living her dream in Finland’s Lapland.
I have met Santa and visited the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, but I honestly think I have the ideal Christmas present. To be able to travel with an amazing team, playing the best teams in the country, lots of quality training, meeting new people and being able to go to a great school while doing all of this.
Olivia Last
Australian goaltender in Finland
Plucked from obscurity in Australia last year, the teenage sensation is now regularly facing hardened Finnish national team players. As a goaltender for newcomers RoKi Rovaniemi´s in Finland´s top women´s division, Naisten Liiga, Last has this season so far played in eight out of 15 league games, reaching a save percentage of 92.0%, ranked fifth among goaltenders who have played at least half of their team’s games.

“As a team, we are working hard to stay in the Naisten Liiga [Finland’s top women’s league] and to do well in it,” she said. “My personal goal is to play as many games and always put the team in the best possible situation to win, on and off the ice,” said Last.

The monumental transition from subtropical Sydney has been eased with life at the Arctic Circle becoming a family affair. Twin brother Harrison and one year younger sibling Matthew are both skating with RoKi Rovaniemi’s junior program.

“It’s really nice having my brothers with me in Finland as they always keep me company. I sometimes train with my twin brother, Harrison’s team. Matthew has also trained with Harrison’s team, so a few times we’ve all been training together. I also played with Harrison’s RoKi team,” she said.
Australian goaltender Olivia Last in action against New Zealand forward Jasmine Horner-Pascoe during the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group B in Iceland.
photo: Elvar Freyr
Accompanying the teenage troika in Rovaniemi is their mother Aneta. Meanwhile, back in Australia, dad Rod is awaiting COVID-19 restrictions to be eased before re-joining the family in what appears to have become their new home.

“As parents, we knew the kids would enjoy the experience of living and playing ice hockey in Rovaniemi for one season, but thought the challenges of living on the fringe of the Artic Circle would ultimately prove too much. But to our surprise, when RoKi Rovaniemi gained promotion to Naisten Liiga and Olivia was offered the opportunity to extend her contract for another season, all three children were eager to enrol in a local school. This was also attractive to Aneta and I, given our appreciation for the world-renowned education system in Finland,” said Rod Last.

While the kids are quickly getting up to speed with the Finnish language, other exotic elements of life up at the Arctic circle require a bit more time to get accustomed to for Olivia.

“When I first arrived in Rovaniemi, sleeping when the midnight sun was up was very strange, but after a while, I got used to it. Harder to get used to has been the winter being so cold and putting on so many layers of clothing before going outside.

“Also remarkable is how we have been stopped in the streets by herds of reindeer roaming freely, which is quite different from the occasional visit from a wallaby, goanna or snake roaming in the bush at the back of the house in Sydney. I also have several apps on my phone which track the northern lights,” she said.
Europe has so far played an integral part in Sydney-born Last’s career. Olivia was eight when the family relocated to her mother’s country of birth Poland. It was during a three-year stint in the south-eastern part of the country that all three Last siblings picked up the game with local club UKH Debica.

Upon their return back home to Australia in 2016, Olivia then continued her development at the Flyers Ice Hockey Club. Her return to Europe was instigated by Gabe Robledo, her goalie coach in Sydney.

Robledo had contacted his Finnish friend Pekka Kankaanranta, who previously played in Australia and now was the CEO of RoKi (Rovaniemen Kiekko). With a goaltending spot being open, RoKi women’s team head coach Tuomas Liitola asked Olivia to send a video of her in action.

In August 2019, siblings Olivia and Matthew travelled together with their mother to Rovaniemi. Upon her arrival, 14-year-old Olivia was immediately thrown into the deep end at her new club then aiming for a spot in Finland’s women’s top division.

“I began training with the women’s team the same evening I arrived,” recalled Last. “I was drafted in as the backup goaltender but was determined to train hard and compete for the starting spot on the team. I then played in a pre-season game, which I wasn’t meant to play but was called in halfway through the game. I was a bit shocked and nervous but I really enjoyed playing with my new team.”
Australia’s Olivia Last receives the Best Goaltender award of the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group B from IIHF Council member Marta Zawadzka. She led the tournament in save percentage with 95.52%.
photo: Elvar Freyr
She hasn’t looked back since. During Last’s debut season in 2019/20 she played seven games in the second tier, Naisten Mestis, and then a further two games in the battle for promotion to Naisten Liiga.

“I think my strengths are positioning and always seeing the play in front of me. I definitely need to work on my puck playing skills so I can be the sixth player on ice. So far, I have met many goalie coaches here and all of them are excellent with their own coaching technique,” she said.

Barely two months after having turned 15, Last debuted at senior level for Australia at the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group B in Akureyri, Iceland. Last was named the tournament’s best goaltender by the directorate as Australia waltzed past opponents to win gold with an unblemished record.

“It was such an amazing experience playing with the older, more experienced players on the Australian team. While ice hockey in Australia has obvious challenges, there are passionate people working hard to promote the game and develop the talent,” she said.
Olivia Last (top-left) and her Australian teammates celebrate after winning the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group B.
photo: Elvar Freyr
One such influential figure being the current Australia women’s U18 team coach Tamra Jones. Having worked with Last for almost six years, she now hopes that the teenage star playing at the top level could add exposure to the women’s game in Australia.

“Ice hockey is still a very marginalised sport in Australia and male dominated. I’d love to see Olivia Last and our other young female talent be recognised, and their hard work be acknowledged here and globally. We continue to close the gap with our competitors, who don’t have all the obstacles we face living so far away from other countries we compete against and being able to practise playing together. I am very proud of Olivia and believe this is just the start of what will be a notable ice hockey career abroad for her,” said Jones.

Turning only 16 in December, Last’s immediate goal will now be to record her first shutout for RoKi Rovaniemi in a burgeoning career where the world is at her feet. “I want to continue improving and striving to be the best I can be. I am not sure where that will take me, but I am really enjoying the journey,” she said.